Martin Schiller 13June2013 Yiddish Book Center
Yiddish Book Center
, National Yiddish Book Center
, Wexler Oral History Project
, Jewish culture
, Family history
, stories about ancestors
, Jewish Identity
, Yiddish language
, Career and Professional Life
, Religion and ritual
, Family traditions
, Jewish holidays
, Eastern Europe
, Food and culinary traditions
, Martin Schiller
Martin Schiller, a retired electrical engineer and Holocaust survivor, was interviewed on June 13, 2013 by Mark Gerstein at the Yiddish Book Center.
Producer Yiddish Book Center (Chad)Audio/Visual sound, color
Martin shared in rich detail his memories of growing up in the 1930s in the Polish town of Tarnobrzeg (Dzhikev). He describes the singing in his home, the celebration of various Jewish holidays, and prayer in the shul (synagogue). He remembers attending a cheder (religious primary school), the various foods prepared in his household, and his mother reading him stories about the âWise Men of Chelm.â He recalls his neighborhood, the market day, and the prevalence of anti-Semitism on the Polish street.
When the Germans invaded Poland in 1939, Martin and his family fled to a nearby town of Koprzywnica where they lived a precarious existence. Times were growing more desperate when the Jewish Council (Judenrat) announced that the Germans were looking for workers. Martinâs father and mother forged identity papers for Martin and his brother and the family was transported to Skarzysko, a labor camp that produced ammunition for the German army.
Martin depicts the horrors of the camp: the filthy living conditions, the prevalence of typhus, the death of his father, and the âindescribable brutality.â He recalls how he learned to operate a machine yet often risked his own life by clandestinely sabotaging the production of bullets. He relates how he and his fellow prisoners debated the existence of God. Martin explains how the Germans used the tactic of collective punishment to thwart any attempts at resistance. And on one extraordinary occasion, Martin describes how he saved the lives of his mother and brother by interceding with the camp commandant.
Martin and his brother were transferred to Buchenwald concentration camp. He recalls learning Yiddish songs there written by a fellow inmate, Mordechai (Motel) Strigler, a noted Yiddish writer and later the editor of the Forverts (Yiddish Daily Forward). At liberation, Martin and his brother found their mother and together they made their way back to Poland, hoping to perhaps find surviving family members. Martin describes though how they were confronted with Polish anti-Semitism. Martin relates how the family spent time in a Displaced Persons camp where he became an ardent Zionist in anticipation of immigration to Israel. But at this point, Martinâs mother received word from her brothers in New York and the family ended up immigrating to the United States.
In New York, Martin relates how he attended a Yeshiva for two years and then later a trade school. He describes how he felt obligated to tell the story of what happened to Polish Jewry, but when met with skepticism from a fellow student, he was shocked and did not talk about the Holocaust for another twenty years.
Martin touches upon the main highlights of his life in the United States where he started a family, became an electrical engineer, and eventually formed his own company. In 2004, at the behest of his son, Martin and his family took a trip back to Poland and Germany. He states that returning to the places that played such a key role in his childhood led to a personal catharsis. At this point, Martin sought to share his Holocaust experiences with a younger generation by writing a memoir Bread, Butter, and Sugar: A Boyâs Journey Through the Holocaust and Postwar Europe.
In the last couple of years, Martin has belonged to a Yiddish club in Delray Beach, Florida where âone week we shmooze in Yiddish, and one week we read a little bit in Yiddish.â Martin fears for the future of Jewish identity, but he concludes by stating that he loves Jewishness and would like to see more young people accept it.
To learn more about the Wexler Oral History Project, visit:
To cite this interview: Martin Schiller Oral History Interview, interviewed by Mark Gerstein, Yiddish Book Center's Wexler Oral History Project, Yiddish Book Center, Karmazin Recording Studio, June 13, 2013. Video recording, https://archive.org/details/MartinSchiller13june2013YiddishBookCenter ([date accessed])